GLENDALE, Ariz. – Gregg Berhalter made his debut as US men’s national team coach on Sunday night, and handed five of his starters their international debuts as well, in a 3-0 win over Panama in the first of two friendlies of this year’s January camp.
Despite a new-look lineup trying out a new tactical approach under a new coach in the absence of several key regulars, Berhalter wanted to make one thing clear, however.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to refer to this squad as a junior squad,” he said in remarks after the match, calling the win a “good baseline” for his side.
“It gave us enough content to work with,” said Berhalter. “The wing play, those combinations I liked. I liked the times we played with two [No. ] 10s to purposely find them between lines. I think that’s very important.”
Berhalter’s vision for wing play was demonstrated early on when Nick Lima, playing as a right back, penetrated deep into Panama’s final third in only the second minute of the match. It didn’t result in a goal at that time, but that sort of range earned the San Jose Earthquakes defender an assist late in the 80th minute.
It also earned him a “Man of the Match” nod from U.S. Soccer, and Berhalter.
“It was because of the complication of what we asked him to do and how he dealt with it,” Berhalter said of Lima. “It’s not easy to ask your right back to get the ball with his back to goal or to ask him to create space in the midfield, but he did a good job of it.”
Lima was chosen first among several options at right back – including Keegan Rosenberry and Reggie Cannon, who also earned Berhalter’s praise – and regularly roamed into central-midfield positions when the US built possession. On the defensive side, the USMNT earned their first shutout since September.
“We want to have an organized defensive structure. We want to be hard to break down,” Berhalter said. “I’ll have to look at those situations where we gave up a few shots, because we want to be better about that. At the end of the day, it’s very gratifying for the back line and for the whole team because we play a collective defense.”
The defense was helmed by two relatively inexperienced players, Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long, who’d combined for six caps before Sunday’s game, while Daniel Lovitz debuted on the left side. Long, who was given the captain’s armband for the match, talked up Berhalter’s system even as he admitted that it’s relatively complex.
“There were a lot of conversations between me and Walker about floating between the midfield and that right back spot,” he said. “It was tough, but we did a good job with it today.”
Despite finding a fault here and there, a measured Berhalter named a rather simple goal for the remainder of January camp, which concludes with a friendly vs. Costa Rica in San Jose, California on Saturday.
“Our job is to keep working hard and develop a team that people like to watch and people are proud of.”